The Comeback Runner

 

I did everything to a “t”, yet here I was with another injury. It seems it’s parading itself around, mocking me with each sensation of pain. “Hey! You’re not allowed to stay here,” I say. But it’s too late. It’s already decided it’s going to stay with me for about two-four months. I feel my dreams slipping away. What will I do next? 

If you’re the type of runner who doesn’t handle injuries well, I’m with you. From 2011-2014, I only had a few minor setbacks in my training. Three great years of building and then BAM, a massive injury. I was fit and knew I wasn’t done, so for me this “not running” situation was devastating. I was set to fly internationally to represent the U.S. in a cross-country race, but was having a lot of pelvic pain. The doctor told me he thought my pelvis was broken and I needed an MRI right away. I stared at him trying to hold it together and then burst into tears. Everything was going so well and it felt like it was all taken from me in that second. Yes, a bit dramatic, hence why I’m still working on how I respond to injuries.

The MRI was negative for a fracture, but I did have osteitis pubis (google it!). Having this injury made me wish I had a broken pelvis. The recovery time for this type of injury is quite vague. It was an injury that resulted in a seven month hiatus from training and racing. I had minor injuries and setbacks along my comeback, which caused some significant issues with the mental side of my running. 

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” 

Now it’s 2020, and I’ve been injured many times since then. I’ve experienced the major lows that come along with injuries and am constantly working on my ability to handle it better than the last time. Let’s just say it’s a process. The return can feel like a never ending battle and I’ve definitely gone down the path of self-destruction. If you’re looking to avoid some common mental mistakes, here are some I’ve made during my bouts with injuries. 

#1: Avoid creating a pity party

Surprise, looks like I’m the only one here. “Why me again? I just had an injury.” “This is the worst party ever.” “There’s no one here except me.” It’s dark and gloomy with no doors or windows. It seems there’s no way out. This pitiful place can only lead to stagnancy and anger, and accomplishes absolutely nothing other than dragging you down into the muck. 

The first step to get you out of this self-created pity party is for you to be aware you’re there. Don’t suppress your feelings about your injury and accept it. Realize that every human on earth has their problems and yours is just different from theirs, but in all cases we have to work at a positive mental attitude. 

#2: Avoid becoming a hermit

I’m injured and decide I must take all my free time to do rehab 24/7. I decide to do even more rehab than the doctor recommended. I say “no” to every friend invite and don’t want to hang out with family. Sorry, I can’t. Gotta do rehab. All day. Everyday. Door slam.

It’s great to be determined to get healthy, but don’t neglect your social life or your family. What we really need during these low points is some human connection. There were times when I decided that Netflix and rehab were life. Over time, I realized it was actually a good time to expand the other areas of my life and relationships – but it takes effort and self-realization of your own mental state.

#3: Avoid bitterness

There are ups and downs and my inability to run for a few months is actually a small problem compared to the rest of the world’s problems. I still at times find myself envious of others when I’m stuck on the sidelines which can lead to bitterness. 

Being unable to make any attempt to accomplish your goals is frustrating. Take it one day at a time resting your body and gaining strength with each day. Recognize that injuries are part of running for most of us.

“Your strongest muscle and worst enemy is your mind. Train it well.”

The trick is to figure out how to keep your mental state in check during these periods of injury. Being mentally tough when you have the consistency and the training to back you up is actually pretty easy. 

How can you re-enter the running world without a battered brain? The formula I like to follow is, physical training + consistency + mental training = success. Of course, do your rehab, but also be constantly feeding your mind with the right fuel. Make little goals you can accomplish to build your confidence. Things won’t happen overnight, unless you’re a super freak, which some people are. No fair! Oops, I’m working on that one.

Next, be aware if you notice negative thoughts and behaviors. If you can notice these, the chances of you breaking free from them will be much higher. Accept things as they are and take one day at a time finding something to be happy about each day. It’s easy to get wrapped up in where you used to be and times you used to hit. Keep telling yourself square one is an okay place to be and don’t focus on what people around you are doing. You have enough to focus on with your injury, you don’t need to be thinking about Joe Schmoe’s killer workout you saw on Instagram. 

#4: Be patient

By being consistent and patient, confidence will follow. A lot of my issues coming back were confidence based, but I was also lacking the consistency. You need the whole formula to get the right solution. If you have a coach, communicate well with him/her and make sure you’re not coming back too quickly. If coaches know how you’re feeling, they’ll be able to structure the proper training for your return and be open to changing things around if need be. 

A few times coming back, I would run too fast because I’d run with teammates who were way fitter than me at that moment. It’s nice to run with friends, but not at the expense of your return. You can also try and find a friend who will run your pace instead of hanging on for dear life with your very fit friend or teammate. 

Once you’re running, however slow, make a plan to stay consistent and don’t get overly stressed by how slow you’re running. I’ve had comebacks where I’ve been so frustrated I just stopped and walked. When you’re feeling this bad, try to think of positive mantras. They can be anything and completely private, purely for your own motivation, whatever gets you moving. 

#5: Be positive

Besides positive mantras, use positive feelings and thoughts from past races, workouts, or runs. Think of one of your best races where you were completely in control. If you were to write down the thoughts and feelings you experienced during that race, you would most likely see only positive and strong words. There are certain races or workouts that come to mind that may have left you with a very good feeling. Think about those. Remember you at your best and realize it’s very possible to have that feeling again. 

We can’t always do it all from within so don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Some other practical things that might help are podcasts. I recommend “The School of Greatness” from  Lewis Howes or “The Strength Running Podcast with Jason Fitzgerald,” as well as books on mental strength like “Elite Minds” by Stan Beecham. I’d couple those books and podcasts along with meditation and relaxation techniques. The great thing about this type of input is that it goes beyond running and can help in other areas of your life. 

#6: You are more than your activity

Lastly, we should all know that any activity like running is only one part of our lives and there is so much more to each one of us. If our lives are 100 percent focused on any material thing, we are in for trouble when it’s taken from us. When things aren’t going well in that all-consuming area, it’s time to reassess our priorities and do our best to make this transition period a positive one.

None of us know what lies ahead – maybe that injury or setback will never fully be resolved, but our responsibility in life is to optimize what we were given. If we never get back to where we were, we can only give it our best shot and then accept that we did our best.

I’ll leave you with a quote I love that applies to running, but also to anything we do in life from Martin Luther King Jr.:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper. He should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all hosts of heaven and earth pause to say: ‘Here lives a great sweeper who did his job well.'” 

Amy Van Alstine is a native of Midland Park, NJ, and a University of Richmond All-American, where she graduated in 2011 with degrees in Psychology and Criminal Justice. She moved to Flagstaff, Ariz. in 2012 to pursue her dreams of running professionally. She was the 2014 USA Cross Country Champion and 2015 USATF National Club Cross Country Champion. Her personal bests include 15:22 (5000m), 15:30 (5K Road), 32:51 (10K Road) and 49:49 (15K). You can follow her on Instagram @amylynne87 or Twitter @alynne77.


 

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